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Setting story straight on Kew Pagoda

PUBLISHED: 08:00 26 August 2006 | UPDATED: 11:31 22 October 2010

IAN COLLINS

The strange story of the Pagoda, Kew Gardens' most fabulous folly, has turned into a Chinese whisper. Ian Collins sets the record straight.

My recent feature on revived Kew Palace prompted quite a mailbag from readers - who responded to my great enthusiasm for the place and also gasped at the entrance fee.

The cost for an adult visiting George III's rural retreat by the Thames is £5… once you've paid the initial entry fee to Kew Gardens. And that's now £11.75.

Some readers were astonished by the admission charge for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew - and all the more so because more than a few could remember happy days wandering in the 250 riverside acres of cultivation and wild parkland having surrendered at the gate the princely sum of three old pennies.

For a brief and blissful period after decimalisation, the nominal charge was 1p. Inflation - and a desire to subsidise the major scientific work carried on this scenic site - has added another 1,174p over the last 30 years.

But, although I really believe that such a national and global treasure should be free of all charges (nothing could be more educational than a visit to Kew), if we have to pay a high entry fee then so be it. It's well worth the money.

So on this page today - and in the sequel page in a fortnight's time - I want to pick out just two of the jewels in the Kew crown, which in themselves are among the most wonderful sights of London.

When we think of Kew we may picture palatial glasshouses - from the Victorian Palm House and Temperate House, both designed by Decimus Burton, to the Princess of Wales Conservatory of 1987. But I want to pick out two other landmark buildings, the first a prominent folly and the second a glorious gallery which it is all too easy to miss.

So, folly first…

In the early 1730s Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his wife, Princess Augusta, leased the Kew estate - close to a favourite home of George II and Queen Caroline at Ormonde Lodge, on the Richmond Estate.

The heir to the throne died, before his father, in 1751, and eight years later his widow, Augusta, founded a nine-acre botanic garden on land south of what is now the Kew Gardens' Orangery. That's where our story really begins.

The architect Sir William Chambers - who gave us the glory of Somerset House, Britain's first and most beautiful purpose-built office block for civil servants on The Strand - designed more than two dozen ornamental buildings in the garden and surrounding grounds. Such follies were then the height of fashion among the landed gentry.

Most, including the Mosque, Alhambra, Palladian Bridge and Menagerie, are now lost to us. Those still surviving include the Orangery itself, the Ruined Arch and - best, and highest, of all - the Pagoda.

As well as supervising the erection of bizarre buildings here, and on Augusta's four further establishments, Chambers had to coach her eldest son, then Prince of Wales, in the art of architecture. Such royal favour could lead to very hard labour.

But the prince - soon to be George III - was an eager and gifted pupil. Some of his drawings, now on display in Kew Palace, are exact and exquisite.

In the summer of 1761, the year of his coronation, George commissioned the construction of the Pagoda as a surprise present for his mother. How they kept this growing giant a secret goodness only knows - though presumably mama was diverted to her other properties, as confining her in a strait-jacket wouldn't have been the done thing (that sort of torture was to be reserved for her son many years later).

Chambers had stayed in Canton for several months during his travels as an employee of the Swedish East India Company and had sketched many local buildings - some of these drawings being incorporated into his later designs.

In time he helped to steer the fashion for the anglicised oriental patterns of Chinoiserie. But his first plan for a House of Confucius at Kew, for Prince Frederick, rather confused the issue.

Chambers later disowned a structure “built, I believe to the designs of Mr Goupy”. And now none of us can comment because it has long since disappeared.

The surviving Pagoda was - and is - the last word in delectable (and possibly demented) design based on a dreamy idea of displaced architecture.

As it began to rise, Horace Walpole, then living across the river in Twickenham, wrote to a friend: “We begin to perceive the tower of Kew from Montpelier Road; in a fortnight you will be able to see it in Yorkshire.”

When complete - and doubtless to Princess Augusta's amazement - the 10-storey octagonal structure reached a height of nearly 50 metres.

The Universal Magazine was unimpressed, however - noting: “In comparison with the stupendous originals we must look upon that at Kew almost in the same light as the little models of the latter which we see in the toyshop.” Unfair!

The structure that now glows and gleams in grey brick and red paint would initially have glittered most brilliantly - and chimed in the wind.

For the roofs were covered with varnished iron plates, with an iron dragon sitting at each edge like a ghostly gargoyle.

Each of the 80 dragons was covered in coloured glass and held a bell in its mouth… hence that tinkling. The top feature was double gilded to give added lustre in the sunshine.

Legend claims that the dragons - turning golden in a Chinese whisper - were sold off in payment for royal gambling debts. But the truth is rather less racy.

They were simply too delicate to stand the test of time, and when Decimus suggested a restoration plan the cost of £4,350 was considered excessive and the once-fiery relics simply faded from view.

The Pagoda was opened to the public in the 1870s but, alas, has lately been closed for safety reasons. Damage wasn't caused by the elements alone - but also by the demands of a national emergency.

For, during the second world war, holes were made in each floor so that bomb designers could drop models their latest inventions from top to bottom in order to study their flight.

How ironic, then, that the Kew beacon's nearest rival in London is the Peace Pagoda now in Battersea Park, an inspiring symbol, especially when viewed from the Chelsea Embankment across the river.

Another Pagoda, built in St James's Park in 1814 to commemorate a victory in the Napoleonic wars, proved more than a little previous as we say in Norfolk. First, Waterloo came rather later.

Second, the towering symbol was burned down by a firework display that was part of the celebrations for its completion. In the next feature in a fortnight, Ian Collins will take us to his very favourite part of Kew Gardens - the Marianne North Gallery. The Pagoda is open for Kew's summer festival How Kew Grew until September 24. Timed tickets cost £3 from any entrance gate. Not suitable for under-fives.

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